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On Metaphors, Clichés and Rogue Waves

Metaphors are a great tool for communicating business concepts especially when you are trying to inspire others to take action. Of course, some metaphors are overused to the point of becoming cliché. No one in a business suit ever stands on top of a freezing cold mountain yet there are thousands of variations of that theme. They are used to convey the message of success or strategic vision.

A metaphor we use at Orion from time to time is The Perfect Storm. The phrase has been around for three centuries but took on more visceral meaning after the George Clooney movie in 2000. (The book that inspired the movie is an accounting of the real life storm in 1991. It’s a bit technical but it describes an amazing true drama.) According to dictionary.com, the phrase means:

A chance or rare combination of individual elements, circumstances, or events that together form a disastrous, catastrophic, or extremely unpleasant problem or difficulty.

Certainly, we have experienced this in business. For example, the combination of unintended consequences from a government regulation, exploitation by bad actors, and unexpected behaviors by consumers can lead to financial upheaval or market collapse. Of course, those are all big forces that can be tracked.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review about HP used a different metaphor for such events: Rogue Waves. I like this a lot. As someone who lives on a peninsula, the movement of water has always been of interest to me, whether for curiosity or survival. While we don’t see the giants that occur midocean mid-ocean – and occasionally topple massive ships – we do see the rare wave that rushes up the beach past the normal high tide limit that swamps people’s blankets unexpectedly. In a very small way, it is easier to the understand the phenomenon by watching water in the bay on the north side Rockaway. The waves there are never very large so you can observe the interaction of different forces quite easily. The tide moves water in and out of the bay as demanded by the moon. The wind makes small waves and ripples. Some waves rebound off the bay wall and intersect with incoming waves. Various watercraft shoot wakes in different directions. Throw in the occasional wind gust and there is an amazing dance going on at the water’s surface.

When each of these waves and ripples crest at the same point, they form a much taller water structure. Taken individually, a swimmer or boat would have no trouble managing any single wave or ripple. The unexpected combination of these forces is what creates the danger. Unlike the perfect storm of 1991, where three major weather events were tracked for days before they merged into a terrible force, rogue waves sneak up on you because each of the underlying forces seems manageable – perhaps easily manageable.

How will your organization protect itself against rogue waves?

Paul King

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